The Colour

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"When newlyweds Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate from England to New Zealand along with Joseph's mother, Lilian, they are in search of prosperous new beginnings. But they are ill-prepared for the obstacles they must face, and the harsh land near Christchurch where they settle threatens to destroy them almost before they can begin. A difficult first winter exacerbates the growing tension between husband and wife, and strengthens Lilian's determination to return to England and leave this strange and unforgiving new country behind." Then ...
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"When newlyweds Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate from England to New Zealand along with Joseph's mother, Lilian, they are in search of prosperous new beginnings. But they are ill-prepared for the obstacles they must face, and the harsh land near Christchurch where they settle threatens to destroy them almost before they can begin. A difficult first winter exacerbates the growing tension between husband and wife, and strengthens Lilian's determination to return to England and leave this strange and unforgiving new country behind." Then Joseph finds gold in the creek behind their small farm, and possessed by the promise of riches awaiting him deep in the earth, he hides his discovery from his wife and mother. When the creek fails to fulfil his hopes, he sets off alone for the goldfields over the Southern Alps, joining the hundreds of others who are under the seductive spell of the "colour", the miners' slang for this elusive mineral. Harriet struggles to manage the farm alone, but eventually decides to follow her husband to the gold diggings. On her own journey westward, she makes a startling discovery that illuminates the emptiness of her marriage at the same time that it holds the tantalizing promise of a future she could never have imagined.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Exhilarating...splendidly eventful...the story swells." —The New York Times

"Every bit as enthralling as any of her previous work...The Colour is a beautifully written novel that teems with life on every page." —The Boston Globe

"Writing at the top of her form. . .With its combination of vivid historical adventure and sensual, late-blooming romance, it's hard to see how this novel can miss winning a new audience for the immensely talented Tremain." —Publishers Weekly (starred)

"Fully rounded human beings and a nimble prose style... Peerless imagination." —Newsday

"[A] gripping pioneer story...The result is a page-turner that's also a work of startling beauty." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

The Washington Post
[Rose Tremain's] new novel travels to the South Island of New Zealand in the year 1864. Joseph Blackstone has emigrated from England with his wife, Harriet, and his widowed mother, Lilian, to find "an honest and prosperous life." With casual expertise, Tremain lays out in her opening pages the conflicts that drive her characters. …but readers who think they know where the story is heading will find themselves surprised by Tremain's deep understanding of human contradictions and generous belief in her characters' ability to grow, if not to fundamentally change. — Wendy Smith
The New York Times
Large and small: the dimensions used by the British novelist Rose Tremain. Her characters, in their immortal reachings, are distended by a metaphysical growth hormone somewhere between magical and religious. Windiness threatens; it could prevail (sometimes it does) but for the array of windmill vanes she sets up -- tiny human quirks, stubbornnesses and reversals -- that put the wind to inventive fictional use. — Richard Eder
Publishers Weekly
Readers familiar with British writer Tremain's magisterial historical novel, Restoration, or her psychologically acute study of madness, Music & Silence, will not be surprised at the accuracy of historical detail in this elegant and dramatic novel about the mid-19th-century gold rush in New Zealand or by her nuanced portrait of the disintegration of a marriage. Writing at the top of her form, she tells a complex story centering on two immigrants to New Zealand, whose recent marriage represents new hopes for both of them. Joseph Blackstone fled England to rid himself of memories of a shameful act; cold and secretive, he is emotionally constricted by guilt. Strong, spirited ex-governess Harriet Salt has narrowly avoided spinsterdom; to her, New Zealand represents the freedom to explore new horizons. Together with Joseph's mother, they attempt to build a farm on the flats outside of Christchurch, but when Joseph finds gold in the creek, he becomes obsessed by "the colour," as the fabulous metal is known. Abandoning both women, he travels by ship to the west coast, where he encounters hundreds of other desperate men and the clamorous, filthy, dehumanizing conditions in which they live. Later, when Harriet attempts to follow him by land, she cannot cross the gorge between the Southern Alps, justly called "the stairway from hell." By the time she does join him, each of them despises the other, yet the discovery of gold binds them in a new way. From this point on, the narrative, already full of subtleties and surprises, becomes riveting, as nature and human nature collide. There's a wonderful subplot about the mystical connection of a white boy and his Maori nurse, and an inspired depiction of a Chinese gardener who peddles his vegetables and becomes the instrument of Harriet's salvation. With its combination of vivid historical adventure and sensual, late-blooming romance, it's hard to see how this novel can miss winning a new audience for the immensely talented Tremain. (May 21) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In the mid-19th century, New Zealand's population of outsiders is swelled by dreamers and gamblers who willingly cross oceans in hopes of gaining a fortune from the country's newly discovered gold fields. At first, emigrants Joseph and Harriet Blackstone and Joseph's fragile mother, Lilian, are not among these hopefuls. They have instead focused on establishing a new life amid the fertile hills of the Land of the Long White Cloud, far away from the life of servitude, shame, and secret crime they left behind in England. But Joseph, lured by the precious "colour," abandons family and farm to stake a mining claim beyond the frightening Southern Alps. His adventurous, intrepid wife follows him, and Harriet's odyssey leads her to revelations of heart, mind, and body that eclipse even the riches of gold. Exotic and skillfully rendered settings, sympathetic characters, and compelling themes make this latest from a versatile stylist a good choice for readers who enjoy historical fiction, including Tremain's own Restoration and Music and Silence. Recommended for most collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Gold Rush is on, not out west but in 1860s New Zealand, and a young marriage is one of its casualties in this gripping pioneer story from the greatly gifted Tremain (Music and Silence, 2000, etc.). Few emigrants have wanted to start over as ardently as Joseph Blackstone, who is fleeing two deaths in his native England. His father died in a horrible freak accident, his sweetheart in a different accident, for which Joseph feels (rightly) profound guilt. He has brought to the South Island his mother Lilian (no woman is more important) and his bride Harriet, a former governess. Harriet is the ideal pioneer, "a woman who longed for the unfamiliar" and for tests of her strength. Joseph has bought land and built a primitive house. The three scurry like ants under a vast sky, plains before them, fearsome mountains behind-until Joseph finds traces of gold beside their creek. The gold seduces him. It becomes his secret love. Clever Harriet figures this out, though, and, on top of his selfishness, this secrecy dooms her love for him. Soon, Joseph joins the Rush (far away from his property), marks out his claim, sinks his shafts. Anything for the colour! (A teenage hustler makes his nights less lonely.) Tremain does a fine job exploring the culture of the Rush: the noise, the stink, the thrill of the "homeward bounder." Meanwhile, the elements have destroyed his house, and Lilian has died trying to save it. Harriet rejoins him, without tenderness, and sets up her own camp. True to form, Tremain doesn't confine herself to the white settler's viewpoint: other important characters include a Maori woman guided by the spirit world, and a Chinese market gardener who will play a crucial plot role andexperience a transformation. Transformations, indeed, abound in this brittle world where everything is possible and yet everything is at risk. The result is a page-turner that's also a work of startling beauty.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312423100
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 4/1/2004
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 396
  • Sales rank: 538,590
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Rose Tremain’s most recent novel, the bestselling Music and Silence, won the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award. Her work, including Restoration, Sacred Country and The Way I Found Her has been translated around the world.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

The Cob House, 1864

The coldest winds came from the south and the Cob House had been built in the pathway of the winds.

Joseph Blackstone lay awake at night. He wondered whether he should dismantle the house and reconstruct it in a different place, lower down in the valley, where it would be sheltered. He dismantled it in his mind.

He rebuilt it in his mind in the lee of a gentle hill. But he said nothing and did nothing. Days passed and weeks and the winter came, and the Cob House remained where it was, in the pathway of the annihilating winds.

It was their first winter. The earth under their boots was grey. The yellow tussock grass was salty with hail. In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding sheet of snow.

Joseph's mother, Lilian, sat at the wooden table, wearing a bonnet against the chill in the room, mending china. China broken on its shipment from England. Broken by carelessness, said Lilian Blackstone, by inept loading and unloading, by the disregard of people who did not know the value of personal possessions. Joseph reminded her gently that you could not travel across the world — to its very furthest other side — and not expect something to be broken on the way. "Something," snapped Lilian. "But this is a great deal more than something."

But now he had a wife.

She was tall and her hair was brown. Her name was Harriet Salt. Of her, Lilian Blackstone had remarked: "She carries herself well", and Joseph found this observation accurate and more acute than Lilian could know.

He turned away from his mother and looked admiringly at this new wife of his, kneeling by the reluctant fire. And he felt his heart suddenly fill to its very core with gratitude and affection. He watched her working the bellows, patient and still, "carrying herself well" even here in the Cob House, in this cold and smoky room, even here, with the wind sighing outside and the smell of glue like some potent medicine all three of them were now obliged to take. Joseph wanted to cross the room and put his arms round Harriet and gather her hair into a knot in his hand. He wanted to lay his head on her shoulder and tell her the one thing that he would never be able to admit to her — that she had saved his life.


After their arrival in Christchurch, Joseph had supervised the purchasing of materials for building the Cob House and hired men to help him and horses and drays to lug the tin and the pine planks and the sacks of nails and bales of calico and at last made ready to set off northwestwards, towards the Okuku River.

As he was about to leave, Harriet asked her new husband to take her with him. She clung to him and pleaded — she who never whined or complained, who carried herself so well. But she was a woman who longed for the unfamiliar and the strange. As a child, she'd seen it waiting for her, in dreams or in the colossal darkness of the sky: some wild world which lay outside the realm of everything she knew. And the idea that she could build a house out of stones and earth and put windows and doors in it and a chimney and a roof to keep out the weather and then live in it thrilled her. She wanted to see it take shape like that, out of nothing. She wanted to learn how to mash mud and chop the yellow tussock to make the cob. She wanted to see her own hand in everything. No matter if it took a long time. No matter if her skin was burned in the summer heat. No matter if she had to learn each new task like a child. She had been a governess for twelve years. Now she had travelled an ocean and stood in a new place, but still she wanted to go further, into a wilderness.

Joseph Blackstone had looked tenderly at her. He saw how ardently she wanted to embark on the next stage of their journey, but, as always, there was Lilian to think of. As always, the choices that he made were never simple.

"Harriet," he said, "I am sorry, but you must stay in Christchurch. I'm relying on you to help Lilian to become accustomed to New Zealand life. A choral society must be found for her."

Harriet suggested that, with the help of Mrs. Dinsdale, in whose neat and tidy Rooms they were lodging, Lilian would be able to find the choral society on her own. "And then," Harriet added, "she will have no more need of me, Joseph, for it is her voice that sings, not mine."

"There is the strangeness of everything," said Joseph. "You cannot comprehend the degree to which this new world is disconcerting to a woman of sixty-three."

"The Rooms are not strange," insisted Harriet. "The jug and basin are of an almost identical pattern to the pot your mother kept under her bed in Norfolk . . . "

"Different birds sing outside the window."

"Oh, but still they are birds singing, not monkeys."

"The light is other."

"Brighter. But only within a degree of brightness. It will not harm her."

On and on it went, this conversation, for it was not a conversation but a war, a small war, the first war they had ever had, but one which would never be quite forgotten, even after Harriet had lost it. And on the morning when Joseph set off towards the ochre-coloured plains, Harriet had to turn away from him and from Lilian so that neither of them would see how bitterly angry she felt.

She ran up the wooden stairs, went into the green-painted parlour and closed the door. She stood at the open window, breathing the salty air. She longed to be a bird or a whale — some creature which might slip between men's actions and their forgetfulness to arrive at their own private destination. For she knew that in her thirty-four years of life she had never been tried or tested, never gone beyond the boundaries society had set for her. And now, once again, she had been left behind. It would be Joseph who would make their house rise out of nothing on the empty plains, Joseph who would build a fire under the stars and hear the cry of the distant bush. Harriet yawned. In the tidy parlour, she felt her anger gradually give way to a deep and paralysing boredom.


Settlers from England like him were known as "cockatoos", Joseph was informed.

"Cockatoos?" He couldn't imagine why. He couldn't even remember what kind of bird a cockatoo really was.

"Scratch a bit of ground, take what you can get from it, screech a bit, and move on, like a cockatoo."

Joseph thought of a parrot, grey and morose, fretting among seeds in a cage. He said this wasn't appropriate to him. He said he wanted to make a new life near the Okuku River, make his acres pay, strive for things which would last.

"Good for you, Mister Blackstone," the men opined. "All credit to you."

What Joseph did not say was that, in England, he had done a disgraceful thing.

"You're a thoughtful one," the men said when the building of the Cob House began. They were mashing mud and grass for the walls, breaking stones for the chimney, and they were stronger than Joseph, who rested more often and was observed staring down at the miles of plain, plains known as "flats" here, flat plains with hardly any trees stretching to infinity below him, staring as still as an owl.

"Penny for them? Missing home?"


"Wouldn't blame you, Mister Blackstone. Homesickness: we know a lot about that here."

"No," he said again. And took up his knife and sharpened it and returned to his task of the grass shredding and made himself whistle so that the men could read his mood correctly, his mood of optimism. Because what he felt as he surveyed the flats or turned and looked up towards the distant mountains was a sudden surge of hope. He was here. He was in the South Island of New Zealand, the place they called Aotearoa — Land of the Long White Cloud. Though he had done a terrible thing in England, he had survived. The future lay around him, in the stones, in the restless water of the creek, in the distant forest.

Copyright © 2003 Rose Tremain

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Reading Group Guide

1. Consider the concept of Englishness in the novel, and how you feel Tremain deals with the idea of 'reassembling' little pieces of England in New Zealand.

2. How does Tremain handle the presence of the Maoris in the novel, in relation to the English people who have descended upon them?

3. Many of the characters are driven by the force of escapism, an over-powering urge to leave all that is behind them and find a brave new utopia in New Zealand. Who do you think is most driven by this romantic notion, and is Tremain critical of this in any way?

4. Compare Tremain's treatment and characterisation of the indigenous Maoris, and their desire for greenstone, with that of Joseph's, and the other gold-diggers, whom she describes as "Men like moths, going towards a golden light" (p148).

5. How does the 19th century notion of Goldrush relate to our modern day? Consider whether you can think of any contemporary examples where the Goldrush mentality — and all its social and cultural effects — is still manifest in our society.

6. "Without desire, nothing is made." (p138). How important is this line to the overall story? Consider the concept of desire and the different forms it takes on in the novel.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 13, 2011

    A profound and entertaining read

    Three generations of men in my family have been/are involved in the gold mining industry. When I found a novel by Rose Tremain, a favourite author, about the 19th century gold rush of New Zealand, I had to buy it. And I¿m glad I did!

    Whether she¿s describing the harsh wilderness that awaits the newly-wed English couple, Harriet and Joseph Blackstone, and Joseph¿s mother Lilian, on their arrival; the dangerous man-made wilderness of a mining camp, or the toll both take on the human psyche, stripping away all inessentials and reducing individuals to their most basic nature, Tremain¿s writing doesn¿t disappoint.

    With subtle twists and turns, the characters that inhabit this story must face deep truths about themselves. Those, like Joseph, who at first appear strong and reliable, disintegrate under the raw influence of the colour (gold) and their own secrets (Joseph¿s relationships with both Rebecca and Will are excruciatingly revealing.) Others, like Harriet, discover unexpected inner fortitude, while Chen Pao Yi, the Chinese vegetable peddler, reveals a quiet strength and sensitivity that is Harriet¿s salvation.

    Tremain¿s skill comes to the fore in her characterisations: although the cast of secondary characters is at times overwhelming, each character is drawn with such exquisite talent that their world is captivating.

    Without any overt moralising, THE COLOUR ends with a clear message: those who face life with a sense of entitlement (whether based on their gender, race, social status or sense of victimhood) will find life futile and meaningless, while those who face life¿s challenges with hope, courage and kindness will prosper both spiritually and materially.

    Tremain has written a novel that is both profound and entertaining. A remarkable achievement.

    (this review is for a different edition)

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    Posted March 17, 2014

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